I live at the hanging tree—well, I say live. A great, ancient cypress tree grows in the swamp west of New Orleans. If you’ve given up, you’ll find it. And then, you’ll find me.
I am less than a man, less even than a spirit. I don’t quite know what I am, save to say that I am some tiny, indomitable sliver of consciousness that somehow refused to go quietly into that good night.
I must have been someone once. I must have had a life, a family. A purpose. Now, and for a very long time, I have had none of that. For decades, I wandered. In the end, though, it seemed best for me to retire from society—again.
And so I remain at the hanging tree. It seems my best—and their last—chance.
Every few weeks, someone comes. I never know how they will perceive me, but humanity is generally predictable: the first word they utter is often a name. Their eyes widen, and they stumble back a step. I always take pleasure in the fact that they are suddenly and entirely diverted from their suicidal purpose, for at least that one moment, by the face of someone they esteem.
Every person has a radius of awareness surrounding them. Depending on their level of intelligence and current distraction, their radius may be very large, or rather close. Whenever I draw close enough to them, or they to me, their mind perceives whatever ectoplasm I may be as the man upon whom they place the highest emotional value.
Sometimes, that man is dead. Those always make for interesting encounters, but you’d be surprised how often a message from the beyond can convince a desperate soul to remain among the living. I’m convinced that, had Hamlet’s father borne such a message for his son instead of one of revenge, the play would have had a happier ending.
Even if their trusted confidante or long-lost lover is still alive, my would-be suicides are naturally predisposed to listen to his words. I am ashamed to say that, in my long and sordid past, I have often abused this curious feature of my existence – decades of enterprising housebreaking in the dead of night brought my temporary body rather a good time on dozens if not hundreds of occasions. But now that I have come to certain realizations about my existence, I have found some small measure of redemption in using it to save others from a fate such as mine.
It doesn’t always go over well, the suicides suddenly spotting me under the hanging tree. Occasionally, I have been entirely unable to convince them to refrain, and on the rarest of occasions my presence has actually spurred them to action. Their brightly colored neon ropes loop over the most popular of the low branches, easily spotted by their worn bark, and though I am able to touch them as long as I am within their sphere of awareness, the absolute panic with which their terrified orbs lock onto me is something I would never wish to prolong. And so, I am forced to back away until I vanish from their sight, remaining only an invisible witness to their chosen fate. For I would never abandon such a desperate soul, not again. No.
Thus do I save most, but not all, of my visitors from the fate they think they deserve. And thus it has been for the last thirty-three years of my interminable existence.
But one day, a different sort of person sought me out. She came to the tree alone, dressed in dark red leather, old jeans, and sturdy boots. Instead of a rope, she brought a gun. A heavy, shiny thing, it adorned her right hip like a dangerous jewel. I had seen one other suicide bring a gun, over twenty years ago. It has sunk two feet into the swamp since.
As she approached the tree, I stepped forward until I felt the edge of her awareness pass through me – at a considerable distance that revealed remarkable perspicacity for one so young. She froze except for her right hand, which latched onto her gun, but did not draw. Her jaw went tight beneath her pale skin, and her dark eyes stilled. She didn’t even breathe.
“You’re not him. But I swear…”
A shock borne of a sudden shift in my reality rippled through me, bringing existential discomfort in an intensity I’d never known. “How do you know about me?” I blurted, hearing my voice as a rich baritone with a Midwestern accent that matched hers.
Her chin lowered, but her eyes remained fixed on mine. “I came to find you. You’re the ghost of the hanging tree. There are legends about you stretching back thirty years.” She finally relaxed her posture and removed her hand from her weapon. “I suppose shooting you wouldn’t do any good, would it? You don’t really have a body.”
I held my hands out, palms up, and eased toward her, then placed two fingers against her upper arm. She flinched at the gentle pressure, and her glorious brown eyes went wide once more. “As long as I’m close enough,” I told her, “I’m as real as he is.”
She swore under her breath, took a step back, and dragged her stocking cap from her head, revealing a short bob with pointy tips, which matched the shade of her leather jacket. “And you’re not tethered to this tree? You can travel?”
A sudden wrinkle of suspicion crossed me. From the moment she’d appeared, I’d felt a sudden absence of certainty, as if the vast map of my world had suddenly sprouted a dark and unexplored region. I nodded.
So did she, far more decisively than I. “Good. Because I need your help.”